ALL OUT (IN THE OPEN)
It’s been a hell of a few weeks in professional wrestling. The story of heat between members of The Elite and CM Punk (and others) which had done the rounds for several weeks finally boiled over in chaos, comments and backstage violence, and whilst the dust still hasn’t yet settled, there’s already much to discuss…
All Out 2022 was a strange event by AEW standards. The Chicago crowd felt flat in places, as the card delivered result after result which, whilst furthering angles and setting up feuds down the road, didn’t have the finality or ‘go home happy’ elements that fans normally enjoy with AEW pay-per-views. It was a long show, clocking in at just under four hours for the stacked main-card, and whilst the crowd came unglued when home-town hero CM Punk pulled off the victory and reclaimed the AEW World Championship, that was far from the most newsworthy moment of the night.
During the All Out media scrum, a tired, hurt and ornery Punk spilled his guts about what had been going on backstage in his most vitriolic rant to date, exposing backstage chaos, manoeuvrings and machinations that had been rumored for weeks. He talked at length for the first time about the situation with Scott Colton (Colt Cabana), who we now know shares a back account with his mother, laid bare his belief that EVPs The Elite, who “couldn’t manage a Target store” had been leaking stories about him and Colton to the wrestling media, and repeatedly called out Hangman page for being an ‘empty headed” dipshit who went into business for himself and refuses to take advice from anybody – all the while casually eating post-match muffins as a bemused Tony Khan sat next to him in near-silence.
In the wake of the press conference, reports emerged of a backstage fight which allegedly involved The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega cornering CM Punk, followed by Punk throwing punches at Matt Jackson, as well as Ace Steel launching a chair into the eye of Nick Jackson, then biting Kenny Omega. It’s said that the fight was witnessed by MJF and Tony’s legal staffer, whilst many tried to break it up.
There’s a huge amount to unpack here, from Hangman Page going into business for himself the Dynamite before dropping the title to Punk in an unscripted, unplanned promo (during which he talked about Punk’s negative impact backstage and stated that, that Sunday, he wouldn’t be defending the title itself, but would be “defending All Elite Wrestling from (Punk)”), to the media scrum itself and the subsequent melee in the back – to what happens next.
It’s worth noting, before we get to the meat of the matter, that Punk’s comments weren’t the first instalment of this saga to manifest on the night, although this first transgression has gone largely unreported. Following the trios title match between The Dark Order and The Elite (which, naturally, the Elite won, given that this title was essentially created for them), Kenny Omega walked towards the camera on the ramp and, after first telling the camera, “Don’t you fucking back up”, stared down the lens and said, “You boys in the back? Try to beat that, bitch. Try to beat that.”
The seemingly unending recent reports about heat between The Elite and others backstage over recent weeks give this statement huge significance, no matter which angle you look at it from. It wasn’t a rallying cry, it wasn’t simply ego – this was a direct, aggressive challenge to anybody who dares believe they are better than Omega and his friends (Hangman was also in this match). Reminiscent of the worst behaviour of Shawn Michaels, it was a war cry, and within hours of that shot being fired, CM Punk had responded with the verbal equivalent of napalm and carved open a chasm across the heart of All Elite Wrestling.
In the wake of all this, two camps have emerged; some pro-Punk, some pro-The Elite. Amongst the hardcore All Elite Wrestling fans, Punk is now seen as an invading force bringing nothing to the dance but vitriol and ego. For those who stand behind Punk, The Elite are the problem and are exactly what’s been holding AEW back.
So, what happens to All Elite Wrestling in the wake of all this?
As of this writing, reports are coming in that all involved have been suspended (including those that tried to break up the fight), subject to the findings of an independent report into the fracas. The outcome of this could go several ways, and the reality is that we only know a fraction of the details of what happened here. Conflicting reports from both camps have suggested, in no particular order, that police were called, that Omega was only trying to protect Punk’s dog, that The Bucks are making overtures to WWE, and that Punk himself may stand by Ace Steele if he is fired and walk out of the company.
If CM Punk is let go – or a walks out – it initially seemed a strong possibility that AEW would be left in ruins, just as WWE is finally beginning its own resurgence under Triple H. Suddenly, unthinkable questions were being asked. Could Punk join WWE? Who might follow him out of the door? FTR? Bryan Danielson? (It’s safe to say it won’t be Colt Cabana…). Certainly, these are titillating topics for discussion, but let’s look pause and realistically at what happens if either the champion or The Elite do leave the company.
In the wake of a Punk walk-out, this would be a company with thousands of fans at live events and online knowing exactly who and what precipitated his exit. Would these fans view Omega, Hangman and The Bucks as conquering heroes, or as childish assholes who stomped their feet and got their own way? There would likely be a split, but the chances of fans staging whole show takeovers and booing their way through live broadcasts are very, very real.
It is possible, of course, that The Elite may be met as heroes who fought for their company and won, enlisting longer and louder screams of approval than ever before. But looking at the bigger picture, how long did it take WWE to quiet the “We want Punk” chants after Punk’s exit? Did the resentment to the company ever really go away? For a company still relatively in its infancy, could this devastate All Elite Wrestling and undo something that has made it special to date – its ability to bring in huge stars with huge fan bases to elevate the young guns and participate in dream matches?
We are in the days now of professional wrestling existing almost entirely within the sphere of hardcore fans. That’s not to say there aren’t any casual fans out there who still tune in when something exciting happens, but that number has dwindled to negligible figures over the last two decades. As such, the fans in the arenas are fans who know what goes on behind the scenes. In many ways, this is what angered Punk so much – the belief that all these fans had read for years was what an asshole he was in the Phil Brooks/Scott Colton legal mess and were now reading nothing but reports of Punk screwing up Cabana’s career in AEW, and the fact that these reports were being fed to the media by the EVPs.
Those in the know – for example, Brian Last and Jim Cornette – have been predicting the house of cards built by the EVPs would come tumbling down for two years, citing reports from backstage sources detailing situations exactly like what is happening with Punk. Let’s not forget, also, that though Cody Rhodes ultimately made a dignified exit, the vision he’d had for the company hadn’t been followed through on, and reports at that time also hinted at backstage behaviour of the EVPs having a hand in his departure. Increasingly, details are emerging which paint the EVPs as the bad guys in all of this – ego-driven, self-centred amateurs who believe in their style of wrestling above all else, who refuse to take advice from veterans and who, ostensibly, used Tony Khan to craft a company in their own image, and thus book themselves however they want, regardless of the impact on fans, other wrestlers or the business.
What followed the media scum and backstage brawl left Tony Khan in a truly unenviable position. Whatever you may think about his booking or pro wrestling credentials, the man truly loves professional wrestling and has put his money where his mouth is to live out every fan’s dream of running their own wrestling company. Watching him sat there beside Punk, we saw a man speechlessly watching his company fall down around him.
What must have been going through his head in the wake of both this and the brawl that followed? Should he fire his EVPs and back Punk, or let Punk walk away and back the men who helped get him into the business? Should he punish his champion for the backstage altercation, as he did Eddie Kingston for pie-facing Sammy Guevera a few weeks ago, and let The Elite run rampant on TV whilst Punk is away, or should he try to mediate what is already an irreparably damaged situation? Or should he do nothing, and let fans on both sides of the divide savage him as the tension simmers?
Or, should he do the most ‘pro wrestling’ thing of all and book them all together and make huge amounts of money out of the situation? If everybody could behave professionally, then the greatest worked-shoot angle of all time could emerge from the ashes of this mess. But that is a big if. Could he really rely on all involved to do business in the ring when egos and reputations are at stake like this?
Business as Usual?
Ultimately, Tony Khan made the best possible decision under the circumstances. After suspending all involved and stripping Punk and The Elite of the World and Trios titles, respectively, he appeared live on the show to announce tournaments and matches to crown replacements, and put on the most thrilling episode of Dynamite in recent memory. Impassioned promos by John Moxley and Chris Jericho reminded viewers just why AEW is so loved, the matches and angles reminded fans that the depth of the roster goes way beyond CM Punk and The Elite, and, more than anything, the world was reminded that Tony Khan is in charge. It was stellar booking, and perhaps for the first time showed Tony Khan as a true “Booker of the Year” who, when backed into a corner, knows exactly how to come out fighting.
One question remains on everybody’s lips, however: did Tony bring this all on himself through weak leadership and lack of company structure? There might be an element of that, but for a new company owner with no experience in the field this is forgiveable, to a degree. Any new manager makes most of these same mistakes. You want to be the guys, you want to give people autonomy and you want everyone to be your friend. It’s when you realise that you can’t have these things and still be the boss that your resolve and abilities are truly tested.
Yet whatever the results of the independent investigation, Tony Khan has some painful decisions to make. Having bitten the bullet and suspended even his EVPs over the situation, he must next decide which horse to back. Clearly, things cannot stay as they are, because nobody involved has handled the situation well, and all involved in the fracas are culpable. From every report available, the suggestion is wrongdoing on all sides – even if Punk was defending himself in the locker room, his behaviour at the media scrum was indefensible, whilst whatever their intentions, The Elite going into Punk’s locker room, furious at his comments, was not appropriate behaviour for company executive vice presidents. It seems the investigation will find blame on all sides, laying the decision about where to go from here back squarely at Tony Khan’s door once more.
As a leader, Tony has to make the big calls, and there will be no bigger call than this as long as he runs AEW. Does he back his tried and true money-drawing veteran and weed out ego-driven elements amongst his current upper echelon, creating a situation where other new stars such as Jungle Boy, The Acclaimed and anybody else who wants to learn from the best can step up and thrive? Does he take the risk that the veterans he has invested in, such as Punk, Bryan Danielson, William Regal and countless others have the minds and experience needed to lead the company where he wants it to go?
Or does he get rid of Punk and hope that the company can still grow without its current top star – with the EVPs who have got the company to its current threshold, alongside the likes of Moxley and Jericho as the main eventers? Or does he realize that with the structure as it is there is a glass ceiling in terms of fan numbers, TV numbers and buy rates, and instead back himself and those who have had a genuine impact on his product to be the ones to take things forward? Or does he simply press forward following what seemed like a reinvention of the company on Dynamite, relying on his incredibly deep and talented roster to drive onwards and upwards?
Put simply, he may not have much choice. CM Punk is injured and out for eight months, which would certainly allow time for suspensions to lapse and the dust to settle, but that approach weakens his leadership position and allows egos to continue to be a fixture backstage. If he does nothing, tensions will no doubt explode again at some point. If he makes Ace Steele the scapegoat (although doing so may be entirely justifiable if he did indeed swing a chair at Nick Jackson and bite Kenny Omega), Punk may walk. If he punishes Punk, Punk may walk. If he comes down on his EVPs, The Elite may walk. It’s a no-win situation and the endgame is not yet in sight. Could he fire everybody and write them off as a bad experiment? It’s hard to imagine, but is surely at least a slim possibility.
Even ahead of the investigation report, Khan must be thinking about what the future holds and, regardless of the findings, the consequences for all involved and what to do next. Whatever happens, it seems there is no happy medium and that hard decisions must be made. Now is the time to step up and decide what the future of AEW holds.
In short, is Tony Khan all-in, or all-out?